A Real Skills Shortage (Part 2)

Part Two of Dick Evans article explores the issues and the current health of education and training in engineering and related disciplines in the post-16 sectors.

It is at the post-16 stage that a clearer picture emerges about the future shape of engineering education and training.

After the compulsory stage of education one can become more confident (or pessimistic) of the likely ‘flow’ of engineers and potential engineers into employment and/or further and higher education studies.

Further Education

The first difficulty presented when investigating further and vocational education training in FE is the lack of a reliable and up-to-date statistical base. No single national data set exists which would allow colleges and private providers to manage, let alone plan the future pattern of provision to match and satisfy the demands of employers and increase the flow of qualified people into engineering and manufacturing.

Hopefully, the new arrangements after April 2001, with the creation of the Learning and Skills Council and the forty-seven Local Learning and Skills Councils will make as a top priority the creation of a national data set for all learners studying in post-16 education and training.

The 1998 Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) labour market survey identified the future skills and recruitment needs of engineering industries. The survey highlighted the following issues:

  • The need for updating and improvement of skills to match more effectively the demands of current and future industrial practices
  • The need for the continued development of craft skills in training
  • The substantial need for high quality and broad based skills in initial training
  • A greater emphasis on broad vocational skills to increase the flexibility of the workforce

The survey also identified the importance thatcompanies place on the new and modern technologies. Figure 3 shows the percentage of companies using high-tech techniques and processes.

 Companies using modern technologies (%)  
Area of Technology250+ Employees<50 EmployeesAll Companies
Computer numerical control824246
Computer aided design903643
Computer aided manufacture652125
Computer aided engineering-1418
Materials requirement planning701622
Manufacturing resource planning62915
Statistical process control67II16
Assembly line/production robots4559

In addition 33% of companies identified significant skill gaps and a mismatch existing between business needs and the average employee capability. Figure 4 shows the gaps identified by companies in 1998.

Companies reporting a Skills Gap (%)
Nature of ShortfallLarge EmployersAll Employers
Management skills5625
Communication skills5029
Computer literacy5335
Problem solving skills4023
Team working3818
Conducting skills audit289
Multi-skilled employees4321
Business planning/development2410

The recent FEFC National Report on Engineering indicated that out of the 423 FE colleges, 365 offered provision in engineering/technology but one-hundred of those now have fewer than one-hundred students on courses compared with seventy colleges at the time of the first survey. The number of colleges with a substantial engineering provision, involving over one-thousand students, has also fallen from 123 to 72 between the two surveys so far carried out by the FEFC.

The report shows that the student numbers for 1998-99 compared with 1997-98 look like this:

  • 6% decline in full-time student numbers
  • 10% decline in part-time student numbers
  • overall 9% decline in student numbers

Although these figures do not necessarily imply a major decline in provision as yet another change in categorising qualifications occurred during this period which makes exact comparisons difficult, some 20% of engineering students are funded by other sources than the FEFC e.g. HEFCE and TEC programmes. Only 11% of engineering enrolments are by female students, again reinforcing the difficulties of recruiting females into this range of disciplines in spite of some high profile campaigns over the last few decades. Figure 5 shows the student population profile compared with that of all FEFC programme areas.

 Engineering (V.)All FEFC Programme areas (%)
Male students8946
Ethnic minority groups1823
Students aged 16 to 244644
Students aged 25 to 595253

Total engineering enrolments in 1997-98 was 310,500 and these were studying for a total of 376,279 qualifications. The number of qualifications exceeded the number of enrolments because some students were studying for more than one qualification. Figure 6 shows the percentage of students studying the various NVQ levels.

NVQ LevelStudents (%)
Level 1 or equivalent23
Level 2 or equivalent33
Level 3 or equivalent19
Level 4, 5 and HE6

FE Colleges continue to find it difficult to recruit students with good GCSE qualifications for the GNVQ advanced awards or the National Diploma courses. The minimum entry qualification for these courses require GCSE at Grade C and although this is being met by most students, very few of these students have qualifications well above these minima. One immediate difficulty this presents to colleges is mathematics. The first national report on engineering from FEFC identified that “Many students start their engineering study with an inadequate grounding in mathematics and this is the subject most commonly failed in engineering courses”. A weak grounding in mathematics continues to provide substantial problems for the teaching of mathematics and science in engineering

courses. As a result of this difficulty many colleges have introduced programmes to assess the literacy and numeracy skills of full-time students on entry and offer additional support throughout their studies to improve their skills. Perhaps the Free Standing Maths Units that might be accredited in the new national curriculum framework, known as Curriculum 2000, could provide additional study opportunities of relevant mathematics to match the particular needs of engineering students.

Key skills are now beginning to be introduced into the colleges’ curriculum. The three key skills of numeracy, literacy and IT, will become increasingly important to students under the new arrangements of Curriculum 2000. However, the wider key skills of problem solving, working with others and improving own learning and performance are not yet widely offered by colleges. This follows obfuscation by the Government and QCA about how these can be assessed. This is in spite of the fact that employers, as shown in figure 4, have highlighted the importance of these skills.

When one attempts to analyse the progression statistics of a student studying in engineering they are very disappointing. Even though enrolments show an increase in the full-time mode of attendance, these are usually at the lower levels of NVQ and the overall students numbers are decreased by the greater decline in part time study. This country desperately needs to increase the flow of students into the higher levels of award to produce highly qualified technicians who can support the chartered professional engineers. It is a longstanding difficulty this country has experienced over many decades. Perhaps we have enough graduates and what is now needed is to increase the stock of highly qualified technicians who support the researchers and the practising professional engineers.

Colleges have traditionally offered Higher National Diplomas/Certificates in Engineering and the related technologies but the student numbers have significantly declined over the past ten years. One of the contributing factors to this decline is the unethical recruiting practices operated by universities, namely ‘poaching’, (see Poached Beyond Palatability, R.G. Evans, TES 1994) whereby they accept students with low grades who would have gained greater benefit from studying an HND/C.

Modem Apprenticeships have been successfully introduced for engineering and hopefully will, in time, provide a good flow of engineers for the future. In June 1999 there were 23,000 starts in Modern Apprenticeship but at present one of the major problems of the Modem Apprenticeship is the low achievement rate, being approximately 32% although there are higher levels of achievement in motor vehicle studies (44%) and engineering manufacturing (36%). The Modem Apprenticeship offers an exciting opportunity to increase the number of students on engineering and related disciplines, particularly if the proposed Advanced Apprenticeship becomes a reality. This work-based route most certainly provides a value-added product.

Higher Education

The first year enrolments on full-time degree courses in engineering in higher education institutions shows yet again an overall decline in recruitment. Figure 7 shows these trends across a number of engineering disciplines.

Area of Engineering94/9595/9696/9797/9898/99% change over 4 yrs
Other14521524622528093 (note small numbers)

If one then analyses the first year enrolments region by region, one begins to discern some interesting patterns. Figure 8 shows a summary of engineering by region.

Region94/9598/99% Change of 4 yrs
East Midlands25201878–25
North East1383980–29
South East27192504–8
South West1292144812
West Midlands37632869–24
Yorkshire and the Humber28822686–7
ENGLAND TOTALS2306319718–15%
Northern Ireland497372–25
GRAND TOTAL2717923415–14%

One of the surprising features of these figures is the dramatic decline in the traditional regions for manufacturing, namely the Midlands, the Northwest and Northeast. The individual data on engineering areas region by region is even more dramatic as Figure 9 indicates.

Region/ Engineering AreaGeneralCivilMech.AeroElec’alElect’icProd’nChem.Decline
East Midlands–80%–21%0%7%–76%21%–14%–3%–25%
North East27%–58%42%-–54%–15%41%12%–29%
South East–13%–15%17%43%49%–14%13%–22%–8%
Midlands Yorkshire & the Humber–57%–13%–1%750%*11%21%–9%–30%–7%

It is fully accepted that engineering and manufacturing has significantly changed over the last few years but nevertheless such declines must give cause for concern. It must also be borne in mind that a large number of graduates of engineering do not enter engineering but prefer to go into the service and financial services industries. Another interesting statistic in universities is that only 14% of females are accepted on to engineering degrees and this proportion has remained largely unchanged since 1991.

The continuing decline in enrolments to universities has brought about a number of high profile closures of engineering and technology departments, or at least that these are merged with other more buoyant departments or faculties in the universities. A similar pattern also has occurred in further education colleges.


This brief and at times superficial exploration highlights the continuing concerns about the stock and flow of highly qualified people into engineering and manufacturing. If this country is to compete in the global market it must continue to offer products and services which require technical innovation. It is crucial that colleges and universities in particular produce high quality engineers and scientists at all levels in sufficient quantity and quality to supply the needs of industry. Education and training must match the dramatic changes that are being experienced in these industries because of the introduction of high technology processes. The way engineering and technology will operate in the future will be very different from that in the immediate past and will require a high quality, but different, set of educational and training approaches.

Concerns can be summarised as follows:

  • design and technology must continue to be a significant option in the national curriculum
  • a national data set for student enrolments must be quickly developed by the Learning and Skills Council in order to provide reliable and valid information to institutions to manage and plan future provision of all post-16 students
  • wider key skills, namely problem solving, improving own learning and performance and working with others must be introduced as a matter of urgency in all post-16 programmes of study. It is, after all, what the employers want
  • the profile of engineering and manufacturing must be raised in order to attract people into these strategically important subjects. This is particularly true at the post compulsory stage of education
  • increase campaigns to recruit more women
  • increase resources to colleges, universities and other providers to make it financially viable to continue to deliver these high cost and often low recruiting programmes of study.

If some of these aspects are considered, then hopefully this country can continue to be a major player globally in engineering and manufacturing. Unless these disciplines can be made more attractive, particularly to the more able students, it seems likely that the problem that we have experienced over the last few decades will continue and this country will most certainly lose its competitive edge in these important subjects and wealth producing industries.

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